Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure

I'm lucky to live in a city whose library has a summer reading program for kids and adults, so I was eager to get reading and claim my free pizza or whatever this year's prize is. The first book I tackled was Matthew Algeo's Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure, which nicely combines my love of presidents with my love of road trips.

I first learned about this book while listening to the DC Improv's "Headliner of State" podcast, although apparently a lot of people already knew about it because I've been running into references to the book everywhere. I hate when I'm late to a history-based trend.

Anyway, Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure covers a trip Harry and Bess Truman took from their home in Independence, Missouri, to New York City shortly after Harry retired to private life. The former president thought he would be able to drive across the country incognito, but it seems he was a bit misguided in that thought. He and Bess were recognized almost everywhere they went, and the media couldn't get enough of it. They were inundated at almost every gas station and diner along the way, and at one point a local police officer got wind of their impending arrival and arranged to have them pulled over for a photo op.

At first all this attention struck me as rather sweet, but after a while I started to feel frustrated for the Trumans. Can't the poor couple just eat in peace? But Harry mostly took it all in stride, diligently signing autographs and posing for pictures.

The book covers the trip itself, but it also covers events happening at the time (like the Rosenberg executions), the history the American road/road trip experience, and the individual histories of some of the places where the Trumans stopped along the way. Algeo recreated the trip, stopping at hotels and private homes where the Trumans once stayed, and talking with diner owners and gas station attendants who interacted with Harry and Bess. The book is part 1953 road trip, part early-2000s road trip. 

Some Amazon reviewers seemed annoyed that Algeo would insert himself into the narrative or give "boring" updates about what happened to the places the Trumans visited. I, on the other hand, loved that. I found it fascinating to learn what became of various people and locations involved in the original trip, and I didn't feel that Algeo's personal experiences detracted from the Trumans' story at all---just the opposite.

The book includes some great anecdotes, like how a resident of Richmond, Indiana, had once sabotaged Martin Van Buren's wagon, causing him to break down outside of town in 1842. Algeo explains a lot about Truman's financial difficulties following his presidency since ex-presidents didn't receive pensions (or security details) at the time, and how in 1912 Andrew Carnegie had offered to pay future ex-presidents $25,000 a year. (The "future" ex-president designation would exclude then-current ex-president Teddy Roosevelt, who Carnegie wasn't particularly fond of.) My favorite anecdote in the book is about a dinner the Trumans had at a popular New York City restaurant, the 21 Club. It was a hotspot for the elite, and "shortly after the Truman party was seated, New York Governor Thomas Dewey arrived." 

I think my mouth literally dropped open.

Needless to say, reading the book gave me a hankering to visit the Harry Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, which is about eight hours away. My kids recently did really well on an even longer drive to Disney World, but I'm not sure the prospect of seeing Harry Truman's kitchen holds as much appeal as seeing Mickey Mouse, so it might have to wait a while.

Incidentally, I did visit the Truman museum once before, many many many years ago on my first major road trip. I had just graduated from high school and was driving from Cleveland to Southern California, where I was going to be attending college. I noticed a typo on the museum's exhibit about Pearl Harbor. (It quoted Franklin Roosevelt as calling December 7, 1941 "a date that will live in infamy" instead of "a date which will live in infamy"). I wrote them a letter about it because even back then I was a pedantic snot. (Full disclosure: There is a small chance that actually occurred at a different presidential museum---possibly Eisenhower or LBJ---but I'm 99% sure it was Truman.)

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure was an enjoyable, informative, and often humorous read that helped bring to life not only Harry Truman but also the bygone era of classic American travel before the predominance of impersonal (albeit efficient) interstates and chain fast-food restaurants. Pick this up as a companion to your summer travels, or to inspire you to take a trip of your own.

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